Did you know that when you pull on a Henley shirt, you’re really wearing men’s underwear? Well, that’s what was in the 1800s, when lightweight versions made of cotton or white gauze were worn in summer, and merino or flannel wool in winter.
So how did the Henley—the collarless shirt featuring a partial front placket of 3-4 buttons—make its way from undergarment to sportswear? And where did it get that name? It all goes back to the English town of Henley-on-Thames, famous for the Henley Royal Regatta, the largest rowing race in England.
Legend has it that rowers there were fond of wearing their undershirts with no overshirts, and the shirt soon became known as a Henley. The rowing tradition of the losers giving their shirts to the winners (the origin of the term “lose your shirt”) helped to spread the style across the country. As trends so often do, the Henley soon jumped the pond, and in the early 1900s, a shirt similar to the Henley became popular with baseball players in the U.S.
The shirt stayed solely in the realm of sportswear until the 1970s, when a buyer for Ralph Lauren looked at a vintage example of a Henley and saw its potential as an everyday casual piece similar to the T-shirt.
The Henley will always look comfortable and casual, but nowadays you can find high-end Henleys in fabrics such as the softest Japanese cotton and cashmere, elevating what was once underwear to new sartorial heights.